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Classical is better than pop - and we know it

Among the many unconvincing claims CBC executives are making in their propaganda war about the massive reduction in support for classical music on radio - the bald-faced denial that it is happening at all, the disingenuous claim that they are seeking musical "diversity" when they are planning to impose a terrible sameness - the most troubling one is the most innocuous-sounding one. It's the idea being disseminated by the PR machine of the CBC, an old canard, that it is impossible to determine that one kind of art is more valuable than another.

The phrase that the CBC has told its spokesmen to use - and which is being duly accepted and repeated at all levels and by many in the other media - is this: "Let's not confuse quality of music with style of music." (This line is from a set of talking points circulated in the building and has recurred in statements by Richard Stursberg, the CBC's executive vice-president of English services, and others.) The point of this argument is that popular genres are just as valuable as the high arts; there is nothing that makes Prokofiev inherently superior to Molly Johnson.

If you've been working at the CBC long enough, and drinking that sweet purple liquid, this sounds reasonable. You wouldn't want to sound like a snob. But if you think about it for five minutes, you start to see the logical extremes of such a belief. It means, logically, that the dance-pop of Britney Spears is just as valuable as the orchestral style of J.S. Bach; it's just one "style" versus another and one cannot confuse style with quality.

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Now, there are people, and many at the CBC, who actually do seriously believe this, and they are clever to repeat it, because, obviously ridiculous though it is, it is very difficult to disprove. Philosophers have been trying for centuries to come up with an objective way of judging art. As soon as you try, you run into the subjectivity of taste. And yet we know intuitively that some works of art - indeed, whole styles of art - are more complex and serious than others, and will probably be enjoyed for longer. Enjoyable as mime may be for children, and although there are many famous and innovative practitioners of mime, we tend not to judge it in the same category as conventional theatre. (I know, even this statement is contentious.)

There are three common ways of ascertaining artistic value.

One is the time test. We wait 100 years and see which forms are still being studied and enjoyed. This test doesn't help us in the Molly Johnson-versus- Prokofiev debate, as we can't see into the future. We have no way of knowing if 100 years from now, music students and orchestras will be poring over the scores of Molly Johnson. Perhaps they will be.

The second common test is the consensus of experts. Professional wine tasters have tasted many varieties and strengths of wine, and they tend to agree generally on quality: Give them a blind test involving some very bad plonk and they will all recognize it right away.

But this system is problematic in the arts, as expert taste tends to be removed from popular taste. The deeper one's knowledge of a set of artistic problems and questions, the more refined and even esoteric one's interests become; one tends to seek out the cerebral over the sensual, and then one's taste is questioned in turn by non-experts. This is particularly noticeable in the domain of visual art, where highly educated art practices and criticism have alienated audiences to such an extent that contemporary art is frequently lampooned as an example of all that is ridiculous about the contemporary world.

The third test is perhaps even more problematic, but it's the one I like best. It relies on the criterion of complexity. The more complex things are, the more subtle they tend to be, and the more they reward listening or viewing. Prokofiev clearly wins this round: It takes quite a knowledge of the Romantic tradition and modernist defiance thereof to understand exactly what he is doing with his alternately sweet and angular music. It takes some historical knowledge to hear the references to Haydn in Prokofiev's so-called Classica l Symphony. And it takes even more training - years and years of training, in fact - to be able to play his piano sonatas. (This explains, in part, why there are far more folk guitarists than classical pianists: It's not just because folk is more popular; it's also because it's a lot easier.) Why does this make it superior? Are simple pleasures not transforming? Yes, but they fade faster.

The complexity argument is related to the time test too: The books that give up new meanings on repeated reading, the pieces of music that continue to be fascinating or troubling after many listens, these are the works of art that end up in the reference books and the anthologies.

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Even if we can't agree on the value of differing genres, surely we can agree at least that some works of art are better - more interesting, more profound and therefore more valuable - than others? And if we agree on this, can't we also agree that the 35,000 unplayed Canadian pop songs that the CBC likes to make us feel guilty about not hearing are not all of equal artistic value either? Are we so Canadian as to think that they all deserve a prize?

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